December 27, 2021
Ending the Year With Gratitude
“The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” William James
We ended last year in silence (http://mindful-leaders.com/ending-a-year-in-silence/) as a way to find solace and peace with all we had lived through in 2020. This year we end with gratitude. We appreciate and honor all we have in our lives, past and present, and we acknowledge all the possibilities ahead of us.
Gratitude is defined as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Gratitude is a positive social emotion, and according to the father of stress research Hans Selye, “the healthiest of all human emotions.” A growing body of research confirms gratitude as central to individual health and a healthy society, one in which goodwill is woven into the daily interactions of people. (For more on the science of gratitude from the vantage points of evolution, psychology, and neuroscience, see the white paper listed in the References below.)
Over the last six months, the major themes in my coaching work, be it with executive teams or individual leaders, are well-being, engagement, and retention. Leaders and staff are experiencing high levels of Covid fatigue, with many being pushed hard by their organizations to meet the shifting demands of the marketplace against a backdrop of their families under stress. The mental health of the population at large has deteriorated with a national emergency being declared for children’s mental health. (https://publications.aap.org/aapnews/news/17718)
Urgent questions are being asked around leadership tables:
- How can we support our people who are stretched and burning out?
- What will it take to retain them and to attract other high-quality candidates in a hybrid work environment?
- How will we foster a belonging culture?
- What will keep our people happy with their work and focused on executing the company’s strategy?
- How will we build in equity in the new work environment and honor our commitments around diversity and inclusion?
- How will we acknowledge and work to help them integrate their core family and personal needs?
- What will effective leadership look like in this new world?
There are no easy answers or silver bullets to address the most pressing questions that face organizations and society like the ones above; however, a place to start is with the practice of gratitude. Showing appreciation and gratitude as a practice is more than remembering to say thank you. It’s the building in of routines and habits that embed gratefulness into our interactions with others at the individual, team, and organization level. And, studies reveal gratitude as a builder of positive self-regard; self-appreciation — being grateful for who you are and what you do — is a solid starting place for spreading gratitude to others.
Here are a few examples of gratitude practices. I’m confident you have your own, and I would encourage being creative with how to be grateful.
- Coaching conversations that leverage appreciative inquiry, that is evoking from the coaching client their strengths, positive attributes, and particularly their awareness of what it feels like to self-appreciate and to be grateful for others.
- Team meetings and retreats with lead-off exercises that bring in appreciation first. Questions and sentence completions like:
- What I’ve appreciated about our Leadership Team over the course of our team development journey is…
- What have you learned from your colleagues that you are grateful for?
- Describe in brief how you aligned as a team since our last session and what it looked like and felt like?
- Use a brief Land Acknowledgement for major meetings and larger gatherings to appreciate and raise awareness that you are on indigenous peoples’ lands.
These gratitude habits create the conditions for leaders and staff at all levels to connect with greater ease and feel good about being in their workplace, primarily for who they are and less for what they do.
Gratitude is a reciprocal emotion; it creates positive resonance and energy between minds and bodies. When we are grateful for someone or something, we will likely respond with feelings of warmth, kindness, and generosity. As James noted, we crave it. He also found that “If you give appreciation to people, you win their goodwill. But more important than that, practicing this philosophy has made a different person of me.” Gratitude for another that is seen and heard changes both the giver and receiver as individuals and has the power to change cultures.
A recent McKinsey report, “From Attrition to Attraction,” provides data on engagement and retention and directly relates to gratitude: “The top three factors employees cited as reasons for quitting were that they didn’t feel valued by their organizations (54 percent) or their managers (52 percent) or because they didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work (51 percent).”
“Feeling valued [and] feeling a sense of belonging” are foundational to employee engagement and seemingly obvious. Yet, as the McKinsey report finds, and I have experienced in my work, managers at all levels fall short in appreciating and showing gratitude to the extent it’s known and felt by employees. Gratitude practices, like sharing anecdotes at the start of meetings that highlight acceptance and appreciation of diversity, carve a path for all to walk and feel they belong. In these environments, those hesitant to be authentically themselves feel freer to express themselves as they are without fear of being judged.
It’s important here to acknowledge that gratitude is hard, if near impossible for some. Holiday happiness and gratefulness can be tortuous and isolating in the darkness of depression and despair. The loss of loved ones is also accentuated at this time of year. Keeping this reality in our awareness we approach gratitude practices with care and compassion. Gratitude has it time and place. The Benedictine monk and author on gratitude David Steindl-Rast shares his wisdom on this point: I don’t speak of the gift, because not for everything that’s given to you can you really be grateful. You can’t be grateful for war in a given situation, or violence, or sickness, things like that. So, the key, when people ask, “Can you be grateful for everything?” — no, not for everything, but in every moment.
I am grateful in every moment, grateful for my life, my family, and for the ability to do the work I love. It is a privilege to partner with colleagues and clients in ways that enrich me, and hopefully them and their organizations.
I suggest bringing to mind and writing down what you are grateful for, what you appreciate. Everything can be included on these lists and in enough detail for you to savor all the goodness and goodwill of people, things, and the natural word. I am…
All helping professionals. You have the well-being of the world in your hands, particularly the mental health of children. May you persevere and stay strong in body and mind for yourselves and us all. The scheduled cheering may have stopped but our indebtedness lives on every day.
The Peoples who first inhabited this place—I write this from Leni Lenape land. You have taught us endurance and a deep respect for nature, and we, now on your land, have much to atone for.
Diverse people from diverse places. So much difference to experience and connect with! May we all meet on the bridge of our common humanity to share stories, relish differences, and grow closer, together.
Mother Earth. We have been unworthy stewards, and yet you have supported us and been patient with us, giving us air to breath and food to eat. May we honor you by committing to your renewal, which is our renewal.
Young Children whose lives collided with Covid. You were born grateful! Everything is new to you every day! May you show adults what we’ve lost—delight and wonder in all life!